Deadline for public comment is Aug. 15

Proposed revisions to the Blue Mountains National Forests Land Management Plan fall short of addressing the social and economic needs of Eastern Oregon, according to Umatilla County Commissioner Larry Givens.

In particular, Givens said the plan favors a "look, but don't touch" approach to preserving wilderness areas at the expense of timber harvests, grazing allotments and thinning overgrown forests susceptible to large wildfires.

Givens serves on the board of directors for the Eastern Oregon Counties Association, which voted unanimously Aug. 1 to reject the plan and each of five alternatives -- essentially telling the U.S. Forest Service to scrap 10 years of work and go back to the drawing table.

The association will submit its concerns to the Blue Mountains Plan Revision Team before the public comment period ends Aug. 15. Counties are also asking to participate more closely in the process moving forward.

"With this new plan, it seemed to me the Forest Service was trying to drive a cultural change in the way we use our forests," Givens said in an interview with the East Oregonian. "They haven't really taken into account what our communities rely on economically."

The Blue Mountains forest plan is tailored specifically to manage 4.9 million acres on the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur national forests of Eastern Oregon. That includes a portion of the Ochoco National Forest, administered by the Malheur.

The purpose of a forest plan is strategic in nature, and does not approve any site-specific projects. It does, however, set overarching goals and desired conditions to achieve social, economic and environmental well-being on the land.

Revisions are required every 10-15 years to incorporate new science and update management practices, though Givens said the cumulative effects of this revision would have a widely negative impact in the region.

"We didn't feel any of the five alternatives were a good balance of management and preservation," Givens said.

First and foremost, Givens said the counties would like to see more economic development allowed on the forests that would not only keep local lumber mills open, but accelerate the pace of badly needed restoration.

In its letter to the Forest Service -- crafted by consultant Roger Lord of Mason, Bruce & Girard Inc. -- the Eastern Oregon Counties Association argues the plan is constrained by "too much of a 'more of the same' approach to management, where the land base available for active, restorative management is whittled down by almost endless exceptions, withdrawals and prohibitions."

The primary issue, the letter continues, is based on two factors: allocation of land into management areas where active logging and livestock grazing is either limited or prohibited, and budget constraints in developing alternative methods of restoration.

"We simply do not have 50-100 years to return our forests to a healthy, resilient state," the letter reads. "Clearly, a more proactive, aggressive approach is needed than has been identified in any of the alternatives presented."

Public access was another major concern raised by citizens, Givens said. Some groups and individuals are worried the plan sets into a motion a closed-forest system, despite the Forest Service's insistence the plan does not close any roads.

Of the locals he's talked to about the plan, Givens said very few support it.

"When you're losing mills, you've lost not just those logging industries, but those support industries and sales of those wood products," he said. "It ends up drying up a community to the point of non-existence."

Kevin Martin, John Laurence and Teresa Raaf -- supervisors on the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur forests, respectively --released a joint statement saying they had not yet seen the counties' comments, but would take a hard look at them as part of the review process.

"The three forests have been engaged with our county commissioners over the years through the forest plan revision co-convener process and we're aware they had specific concerns with the preferred alternative," they said. "We value our relationships with our counties and will continue working with our commissioners as we move through the comment analysis and forest planning process."

Those still wishing to comment can download the Proposed Revised Forest Plan and draft Environmental Impact Statement at www.fs.usda.gov/goto/BlueMtnsPlanRevision. A limited number of printed copies are available by calling 541-523-1302 or 541-523-1246.

Comments can be submitted online at www.fs.usda.gov/goto/BlueMountainForestPlanRevisionComments. Written comments can be submitted to the Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision Team, Box 907 in Baker City, or faxed to 541-523-6392.

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Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4547.

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